TV Viewers Fight to Save Soul!: An Excerpt from Gayle Wald’s It’s Been Beautiful

Its Been BeautifulIn It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television, Gayle Wald mines the political, cultural, and affective archive of Soul!, a groundbreaking public-television program that combined black performing arts with frank talk about identity and social revolution. Airing weekly beginning in fall 1968, Soul! in its inaugural season created a welcoming space for both established and up-and-coming figures, including James Baldwin, the Last Poets, Roberta Flack, Sam and Dave, and Betty Shabazz. But midway through its first season, the Ford Foundation—a crucial underwriter of the program—abruptly withdrew its support, leaving the show—and producer Ellis Haizlip’s plan to take Soul! national in 1970—in the lurch.

In this passage from It’s Been Beautiful, Wald writes about how viewers fought back to save Soul!, mirroring, in both their eloquence and the warmth of their regard for the program, Soul!’s own respectful and warm address to the black community.

The variety of written appeals to Channel 13 was impressive. Some were typewritten; others were handwritten or, in the case of letters from children, illustrated. Some were from representatives of groups of workers or specific communities; others spoke for families or individuals. A letter from Port Jarvis, New York, began with the salutation “Dear Ellis.” A black serviceman stationed at Fort Tilden, in Queens, composed his letter while he watched: “I am listening to LeRoi Jones and it sounds good. It is wonderful to hear my people expressing themselves in many ways (asides from rotting).” One viewer praised Soul! as “a particularly relevant vehicle for those of us in the white community,” and specifically singled out the Last Poets’ “Die, Nigga!!!”, writing that “the power and majesty of that segment beggars description.” The director of a juvenile detention facility in Orange County, New York, wrote to say that Soul! was important to his wards. Peter Long, Loretta Long’s husband and public relations director at the Apollo Theater (yet another connection to the Harlem venue), weighed in with a heartfelt note about the ways exposure on Soul! had jump-started his wife’s career, and pledged the Apollo’s continued collaboration with the show.

Letters in defense of Soul! issued from high and low. Ralph Bunche sent a telegram; an inmate of Monmouth County Jail, in New Jersey, sent a letter that bore the warden’s stamp of approval. A Brooklyn writer who identified herself as a “soul sister” wrote that Soul! was “the only show catering to the task of our generation (young).” Seven people from Jamaica, Queens, signed a letter that said: “Keep ‘Soul’ and educate, entertain, and maybe save a few false fire alarms, whitey’s head, stores, and my sanity.” “T.V. really was never for me before,” wrote a grateful female viewer from Rego Park, New York. “In my opinion, ‘Soul!’ is too relevant to the social viewing needs of a group of minorities of the New York area as large in number as we are to be taken away.” Another writer, identifying herself as “a widow woman” who had scrubbed hospital floors to educate her three grown children, concluded, “I think Soul is not only entertaining, but empowering, enlightening and hopefull [sic].” A Long Island City woman submitted an appeal in the form of a poem:

My family has a five-hundred dollar

colored television set

that we turn on
     once a week
     9 p.m.
     Channel 13
Because it’s the only for real thing on T.V.
Dig it?

It’s Been Beautiful will be published in March. You can preorder now from online or local bookstores, or save 30% by ordering directly from us. Call 888-651-0122 and use coupon code E15WALD.

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